Today is the one-year anniversary of our first day in lockdown in the UK.
First, my thoughts are with the families and friends of loved ones who’ve sadly passed away from this disease.
Second, a big thank you to the NHS, healthcare workers, and carers all around the world for everything you do on a daily basis.
A few months into our first lockdown, my friends asked me if I’d rather be in the UK or the US and I answered with authority, “UK”. At the time, the UK government appeared to have a plan and my gut told me that a centralized healthcare system (NHS: National Health Service) would probably fare better than a disconnected healthcare system like the one in the US.
Fast forward one year and I’m a flip-flopper, one who would rather be living in the US during the pandemic. We have spent a total of 244 out of the past 366 days in full lockdown in the UK – that’s nearly two-thirds of a year.
And it’s not over yet. We’re still in lockdown, lockdown 3 to be precise, and we’ll be in this lockdown until May 17, 2021, at the earliest. If all goes according to plan, on May 17, we’ll have spent 278 days out of the past 420 days in lockdown.
Lockdown in the UK means that only businesses deemed essential can remain open, like supermarkets, pharmacies, butchers, fishmongers, bakeries, pet stores, and home improvement shops. The lockdown rules haven’t changed much between the three lockdowns but there are three key differences that are worth pointing out.
- Essential health services like dentists and optometrists were required to close during lockdown 1 but were allowed to remain open during subsequent lockdowns.
- Restaurants were required to fully close for the first month-ish of lockdown 1 (no delivery, takeaway, or indoor dining). They were allowed to resume takeaway and delivery services after that first month and during subsequent lockdowns.
- Non-essential retail (think Target, REI, Bed Bath & Beyond, any apparel store) was required to close during lockdowns 1 and 2 but were allowed to stay open for click-and-collect services in lockdown 3. Imagine not being able to go into a Target store for two-thirds of the year…
Additionally, social contact is restricted to the people you live with and anyone in your support bubble. As childless expats, we do not have a support bubble so we are alone together.
During lockdown periods, we are told to stay at home and only go out when necessary. The official lockdown slogan is:
STAY AT HOME – PROTECT THE NHS – SAVE LIVES
The official everyday slogan is:
HANDS – FACE – SPACE
(meaning: wash your hands, cover your face, keep space)
As residents of London, we have gone through a trio of national lockdowns during the past year. Lockdown 1 was at the UK level and lockdowns 2 and 3 were for England only, although all four nations imposed lockdowns at the same time as our third lockdown. Threaded through the non-lockdown periods were regional restrictions were applied, known as tiers.
Based on conversations with friends and family members in the US, the stay-at-home orders in the US fall somewhere between England’s second and third tiers.
I’ll explain tiers more in a little bit but below is a graph that shows the restriction levels in London since March 23, 2020. The dotted line represents my estimated US stay-at-home order restriction level, noting that stay-at-home orders were not continuously in place and the dotted line is for visual reference only.
We kicked off lockdown 1 with the four nations (Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England) united together – we were all in this together but after we slowly stepped out of lockdown 1 in July 2020, the nations went their separate ways. It was like a Brexit within Brexit.
Each nation created its own regional tier structure and applied tiers to regions within their nations. The idea was to keep the economy open where cases were low and close the economy where cases were high. Overall, tiers made sense but a study was recently released that suggests that tiers were not effective in containing surges within a region.
Restrictions in lockdown 1 were eased in steps and without formal tiers, there isn’t an official end date to lockdown 1. For consistency throughout this blog, I have chosen to define the period for lockdowns 1 and 3 from the date when the lockdown started to the date when restaurants reopened for indoor dining.
Lockdown 1 lasted 103 days, ending on July 4, 2020, known as “Super Saturday” and coincided with my one-year anniversary of moving back in the UK. It was the perfect storm to daydrink.
Looking back, lockdown 1 was rough but tolerable. The first month was the roughest with almost everything fully closed but we were doing what we needed to do to save lives… or were we?
At the time of writing, the UK has the highest death toll in Europe (damn you, UK variant) and the UK has one of the highest death tolls per 1 million people in the world, a much higher death toll than the USA.
In the UK, a death is counted as a “covid death” if the deceased had a positive covid test result within 28 days of death. Does this mean a person’s death is counted as a covid death if they had a positive covid test 28 days ago and then die in a car accident three weeks after testing positive? I don’t know.
Is the UK’s definition of a covid death more or less lenient than other country definitions and therefore, are the UK’s death totals inflated compared to other countries? I don’t know.
What I do know is that we have spent a considerable amount of time in full lockdown and our death toll is very high, much higher than other countries that have spent a fraction of the past year in lockdown.
Freedom round 1
As mentioned previously, on Super Saturday, restaurants were allowed to open with outdoor/indoor dining. We rode our bikes to a wine bar in Little Venice to celebrate. It was cold and rainy and we were soaked by the time we got home but it didn’t matter because it felt like a little bit of normalcy had returned to our lives.
Lockdown 1 was behind us and a hangover was ahead of us.
More sectors of the economy opened up over the following weeks and we were able to go on holiday twice. We went to Crete in August and Italy the following month.
Traveling in/out of the UK was/is not a straightforward or simple process. We can’t just put on a mask, hop on a plane, and hit the ground running in our destination country. Every country had/has its own requirements around testing, quarantine, and forms.
Shortly after Super Saturday, the UK government introduced “travel corridors”. This was a list of countries that had low case rates and therefore, there was no quarantine on either side of the journey.
At the moment, travel corridors are suspended because travel out of the UK is prohibited by law except if traveling for education, employment, or to take care of a sick family member/family emergency.
Currently, a “Declaration of Travel” form must be completed and given to the passenger’s travel company (i.e. British Airways) at the time of departure. This government-mandated form carries a fine of £200 if not provided to the travel company but there is no real enforcement to stop people from traveling, even if a person writes “Partying in Ibiza” on their form.
On March 25, the government will vote on a new bill that would impose a £5,000 fine to anyone who leaves the UK without a “reasonable excuse” but who’s the enforcer in this situation? The government can’t expect airline, ferry, and train companies to take on this burden.
Who’s fact-checking the excuses laid out on the forms? If I write that I’m attending my grandmother’s funeral, who’s fact-checking my excuse to learn that both of my grandmothers died years ago? Is supporting documentation required?
In addition to travel corridors, the UK maintains a “red list” of countries with high case rates and/or more-transmissible dominant variants (South African and Brazilian). When arriving in the UK from a country on the red list, you are required to quarantine in an approved hotel at your expense.
Other than our two trips abroad and nearly melting to death in our flat during a 10-day heatwave in August, that brief period of freedom over the summer and autumn is a blur to me.
We could go shopping, like in an actual store that sold something other than food or medicines. We could drink a cup of coffee inside a cafe. We could eat in a restaurant. We could sit inside a pub. We could go to the gym, the dentist, get a haircut, get a massage. It was nice and looking back, I should have appreciated the freedom more because it’s only a distant memory now.
As we were enjoying our freedom, the government was working on defining a tier system to help ease the confusion of regional restrictions. The tier system for England was formally introduced in October 2020. It began with three tiers and a fourth tier was added in December 2020. Tier 4 was the equivalent of lockdown.
Below are the leaflets for the four tiers in England.
Our period of freedom came to a screeching halt three weeks after we returned from Italy when lockdown 2 landed on our doorstep on November 5, 2020.
The last time we were on public transportation was on March 13, 2020. That was 1 year and 11 days (376 days) ago.
With the exception of driving in Greece and Italy, we’ve been in a car four times which were our journeys to/from Heathrow airport.
The last time I was physically in the same room with a friend or family member was a few days after Christmas 2019 when Peter’s brother departed London. Prior to that, it was on December 15, 2019, when my sister-in-law dropped me off at the airport. Using December 15 as the date, this was 1 year, 3 months, and 9 days (465 days) ago.
Peter and I have been together for an average of 23 hours a day, every day, for the past 366 days. Imagine being no further than a few feet from your spouse or partner or anyone for that matter for 23 hours a day, every day, for an entire year…
Our everyday lives are concentrated in an area equivalent to the size of eight US city blocks. We affectionately refer to this area as the “Covid Triangle” and we sometimes call it our “two-thirds mile radius” but that’s more of a description of the maximum distance that we venture out from our flat in any given direction.
In fact, we’ve only ventured further than a mile from our flat seven times in the past 366 days. We traveled to Greece and Italy and we went on five bike rides in London. Imagine living in a suburb in the US and only leaving your subdivision seven times in the past year…
Lockdown 2 was the easiest of the three lockdowns because it was the shortest and had a definitive end date. It was slightly less restrictive than lockdown 1, yet still a lockdown by definition.
Lockdown 2 officially lasted 27 days, ending on December 2, 2020.
Restaurants were allowed to remain open for delivery and takeaway but were not allowed to sell alcohol on-the-spot like they were during the last half of lockdown 1.
Dentists and optometrists were allowed to remain open and non-essential shops could remain open for click-and-collect services.
The government referred to lockdown 2 as a “fire break” and it was meant to stop the virus from spreading but, unfortunately, the opposite happened.
London exited lockdown 2 with a higher positive case rate per 100,000 than when we entered lockdown.
Freedom round 2
Following lockdown 2, the government placed London in tier 2 which was the middle tier at the time and that’s when I started tracking the case rates in London because the decision, though very much welcomed, was illogical.
Why would London be put into a tier that allows for, among other things, a shit ton of social interaction, when case rates were rising? The only explanation I have is that they wanted to give the economy a quick boost by allowing people to do their Christmas shopping before lockdown 3 which they knew was coming very, very soon.
The graph below shows the positive case rate per 100,000 for London. The first dot represents the case rate on the first day of lockdown 2 and the second dot represents the case rate on the day after lockdown 2 ended. The new UK variant caused cases in London to explode within days of coming out of lockdown. It would take months until lockdown restrictions and vaccines were able to wrangle the virus under control.
Our period of freedom between lockdown 2 and when London went into tier 4 (lockdown by government standards) lasted 18 days. We spent 14 days in tier 2 and four days in tier 3 restrictions and then boom, tier 4.
Applying my definition of lockdown which defines a “lockdown day” as any day when restaurants are closed for indoor dining, then the period of freedom drops from 18 days to 14.
Here’s what that looked like:
|Lockdown 2||2020-11-05||2020-12-01||27 – lockdown|
|Tier 3||2020-12-16||2020-12-19||4 – “lockdown”|
|Tier 4||2020-12-20||2021-01-04||16 – lockdown|
|Lockdown 3||2021-01-05||2021-03-23 (present)||78 – lockdown|
Fourteen days is not a lot of time. It’s two weeks. It’s ten workdays and four weekend days. It’s two spring breaks. It’s a generous amount of yearly PTO awarded to employees of US companies. It’s roughly the number of days it takes to finish a regimen of antibiotics. It’s the number of days it takes to drink 14 bottles of wine – or 28 if you’re an overachiever.
I associate lockdown 2, the brief period of freedom that followed, and lockdown 3 as one continuous lockdown. To me, London has been in lockdown since November 5, 2020, which was two days after the US presidential election.
Side note: Simultaneously, we were facing the hard reality of Brexit and what that really meant for the UK. Panic buying ensued but not as extreme as the panic buying of lockdown 1.
Toward the end of our period of freedom, on December 19, 2020, Boris Johnson announced that London and other parts of southern England would enter tier 4 restrictions beginning at midnight. And with that announcement, he “canceled Christmas”.
Canceled Christmas? What?
In October/November, all four nations agreed to temporarily ease restrictions for seven days over the festive period to allow families to get together, regardless of where they lived in the UK. With the announcement of tier 4 (aka regional lockdown), residents in tier 4 areas were prohibited from leaving their regions and mixing with other households, so Christmas plans were crushed.
And that was it. Non-essential retail closed, Restaurants and pubs switched to delivery and takeaway only, Christmas was canceled, and with the exception of schools closing and then opening again, not much has changed with our restrictions in the 95 days since Boris canceled Christmas. The small adjustments that have been made to restrictions pertain to social contact and don’t affect Peter and me because we are alone together.
Lockdown 3 officially began in England on January 5, 2021, one day before the US Capitol riots. I remember receiving consolatory messages from friends and family as the media headlines read “UK enters another lockdown” only for me to say that nothing was changing for us because we were already two months deep into lockdown.
And that brings us to today, March 23, 2021.
The UK’s vaccination program is one of the most successful in the world having giving the first dose to more than 50 percent of adults. Our vaccine uptake has been incredibly high (above 90 percent) thus far, especially across the nine priority groups and our positive case rate has fallen dramatically in the past several weeks as the vaccine and lockdown restrictions do their jobs.
But – and I hate having to write this – the UK has recently hit a snag with vaccine supply which will delay vaccinations for “the rest of us” in Phase 2 of the rollout.
The original rollout schedule will likely end up being on schedule; it just feels like a delay because the NHS was running approximately a month ahead of schedule and we’re going to lose that month because of supply issues from India, and, now, possibly from the European Union.
It’s a disappointment but it’s not something we can control. In the UK, there is no jumping the vaccine queue because you must be invited (given a unique booking code) to book a vaccine appointment. The vaccination program is entirely coordinated through the public health system, the NHS. I believe that the centralized health system is why the program has been so successful.
England’s lockdown easing plan
I didn’t imagine a year ago that I would be writing a blog post about still being in lockdown but here we are. We are still staring out the window wishing covid particles were literally visible. Still stuck in our eight city blocks. Still stuck with shop windows filled with Christmas decorations.
Last month, the lockdown easing plan was announced for England and it contains four main stages. We are currently in Stage 1 and Stage 1.5 on the horizon – these stages do not affect us.
March 8, 2021
|-All schools will open for all pupils|
-Recreation in a public space permitted
-Mixing outdoors allowed for 2 people (“coffee on a bench” scenario)
March 29, 2021
|-Outdoor sports facilities reopen (golf courses, tennis courts)|
-Outdoor gatherings of 6 people or 2 households permitted
-Weddings attended by up to 6 people permitted
April 12, 2021
|-Non-essential retail reopens|
-Personal care sector reopens (salons, massage clinics, spas)
-Outdoor hospitality reopens, including alcohol sales (restaurants, pubs)
-Indoor leisure reopens (gyms, swimming pools)
-Most outdoor venues reopen (zoos)
-Members of the same household can take a holiday w/in the UK
-Weddings attended by up to 15 people permitted
May 17, 2021
|-Indoor gatherings of 6 people or 2 households permitted|
-Most social contact rules lifted outdoors
-Indoor hospitality reopens w/rule of 6 (restaurants, pubs)
-Indoor entertainment venus reopen (museums, theatres, cinemas)
-Performance/sporting events reopen w/limits
-Hotels, hostels, and B&Bs reopen
-Weddings attended by up to 30 people permitted
-International leisure travel may resume
June 21, 2021
|-All legal limits removed on social contact|
-All remaining closed sectors reopen (night clubs)
-Restrictions lifted on large events
-All limits removed on weddings/life events
Stage 2 (April 12) is when life starts to change for us. We have a reservation at our Super Saturday wine bar. I hope the weather is acceptable because only outdoor eating/boozing is allowed in Stage 2 and we are planning to ride our bikes.
I’m looking forward to our gym reopening (no group classes, however) and getting a haircut, my second haircut in a year. I’m not a “shopper” but it’s eerie when 95% of shops are closed and I’m eager to see people popping in/out of shops and skipping down the sidewalk with shopping bags in their hands.
Stage 3 (May 17) is when indoor dining can reopen and is when life will feel somewhat normal. This is the most important date/stage in the plan because it is the date when international travel may resume. We’ve got a lot riding on this date because our trip to Crete in May 2020 was postponed to May 2021 and it’s at risk of being postponed again.
Until we hit the April and May milestones, we will wait patiently. As slow and painful as the lockdown easing plan is, I’d rather take it slow and allow for scientists to analyze the data between the stages than to lift restrictions prematurely, have a surge in cases, and go into a fourth lockdown.
No one wants another lockdown.